Less restrictive splint offers pain relief and an alternative to surgery People with thumb arthritis who are not ready for surgery no longer have to simply live with their pain, thanks to a new orthotic design developed by a U of T researcher.
Inspired by a co-worker's unsatisfactory experience with a previous custom-made splint, Pat McKee, a professor in U of T's Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, decided to experiment with existing thumb arthritis therapies and came up with something better. McKee and Marie Eason Klatt, an occupational therapist at St. Joseph's Health Centre, presented the new therapeutic advance and study results to an international group of hand therapists last month at the annual general meeting of the American Society of Hand Therapists in Atlanta, Ga. "My colleague got therapy for her thumb arthritis but it didn't work so she wasn't using it," McKee explains. McKee set to work and created a new design using thermoplastic about half the thickness of the usual models, with added perforations for ventilation and increased flexibility of the material. Unlike the existing orthoses, it stabilizes the base of the thumb while leaving the wrist and thumb free.McKee's design (right) is less restrictive than traditional splint used in the study."A lot of therapists are overrestricting the joint," McKee says, "but people need something that is sufficiently stable to relieve pain but still allows activity." Arthritis of the thumb affects approximately one-third of women between the ages of 40 and 75. It can cause debilitating hand pain, swelling and decreased strength and range of motion and make it difficult to do simple household tasks such as turning doorknobs and opening jars. Thumb arthritis sufferers often turn to professional hand therapists, highly specialized physical or occupational therapists with expertise in the delicate and essential functions of the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. McKee hopes more therapists will now recommend this treatment option to their clients. "Splints do not have to be bulky or an annoyance to do the job," McKee says. "More and more people are using them successfully to delay or avoid surgical procedures for arthritis in the thumbs."Surgery has often been considered the only way to relieve thumb pain. But splints offer new hope without involving surgery."(Source: University of Toronto: Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy: November 2006.)